Stage Debut of a Twisted, Complex Journey, Composing, 30/09/2014

Under the Trees, Eaten got its debut reading this weekend at a time when it was a book you could purchase. I read several excerpts at the Underdog Poets’ Academy, a reading night for emerging authors that my friend Sarah B organizes with her business partner Maddy C in the independent publishing and literature non-profit, Meat Locker Editions

The Academy is a monthly reading night for emerging and chrysalitic authors in Toronto and the surrounding area. It happens in the upstairs lounge of a bar called The Central at Bloor and Markham streets, just across from Bathurst Station. However, it’s going bi-monthly for a while, as Sarah and Maddy enter a period when their company becomes, as Sarah put it to me last night, ridiculously busy. Check the link I’ve posted above for more of Meat Locker’s worthwhile projects.

I was happy to share the bill with some worthwhile poets, whose work varied from intense and insightful to ironically hilarious parody. The last time I read at the Academy, I squeezed five minutes of material into the open mike section on a sparsely attended night in late February. This weekend, I read a few excerpts from a performance text that I drew up for a plan I have for a 40 minute reading. That larger plan will be for solo headlining performance and a multimedia show that I’ll need collaborators to develop.

My novella also engages with the sci-fi
tradition of giant insect imagery. All class.
Under the Trees, Eaten is a book that does a lot of things, and I designed my set of excerpts to demonstrate as much of that as possible. The excerpts I read began introducing the mystery and suspense, but also profound moments: Marilyn’s first meeting with a native of the isolated and alien town of Seul-Coeur faces her with hostility and implicit threats of violence. As they fly to the town, their small plane is attacked by a strange green lightning that envelops her guide Pierre.

Yet there is also a deep moment in conversation between Marilyn and Pierre, as he describes his experience ice fishing and the dangers of bear attacks at particular times of the year. A bear has a soul, he says. “It is a soul that seriously considers eating you, which is why you need the gun, but it is still a soul. There are very few people who understand that about a bear.”

The line got just the reaction I hoped it would: laughter and thoughtful nods, one right after the other. I think the deepest truths in human life occur side by side with laughter.

Under the Trees, Eaten is also a very feminist book in that it has a female protagonist intruding on the framework of a Lovecraftian story (most clearly expressed by the sections in which her father narrates his tragic adventure in the area, which takes place three years before the main narrative) in a creative destruction. I read a scene at the end of chapter three where Marilyn and Pierre confront each other about his continued caginess. He stands over her, in a moment that I explicitly code, through Marilyn’s own accusation, as an expression of the body language of domestic violence. 

Not going to lie. I had the audience eating out of the palm of my hand at that scene. I think I lost a couple with my description of the otherworldly mutilated moose Marilyn discovers in Pierre’s barn. But my audience was intrigued.

In theatre news, Mel tells me that rehearsals on You Were My Friend are going swimmingly. We plan to meet later this week to go over the media plan, and my team will likely (given our assignment schedule) get started on promotion in the next week or two. It’s coming together quite fast, really, but the official debut is in five weeks. It will approach faster than I can feel.

The Officers’ Club, Doctor Who: The Caretaker, Reviews, 28/09/2014

In the case of this episode, I’m quite thankful that Phil Sandifer has written such a comprehensive review, as I don’t have to spell out a lot of the details as I would have otherwise. Of course, I’ll place the link after my


warning, right about here. Those details include the way Capaldi’s performance acts as a further revision of the script, the deft means by which the show is spelling out Clara and Danny’s relationship, and the peculiar approach Capaldi takes to the comedy of a Gareth Roberts script, which is very different from Smith’s. So I’ll just let you read, and post this scary picture of the Skovox Blitzer war machine while you follow the above link to Phil’s review and have a good think about what he said.

Ready to start? Okay.

The most philosophically intriguing element of The Caretaker is its conversation about the politics, morality, and ethics of class. This is most obviously brought to the surface in the first direct conflict between Danny Pink and the Doctor. Part of the thematic arc this season has involved the Doctor’s distrust of soldiers. It’s never quite explained why, but given the history of the show in total and some key events this season (particularly in Into the Dalek), it’s because they prioritize violent action as a means of problem solving.

The Doctor's plan to neutralize this powerful, destructive
robot involves convincing it that he is its creator, so he can—
Wait, I've really got the wrong photo here, haven't I?
The Skovox Blitzer is a war machine, and a very powerful one at that. When Danny first discovers what it is, his first recommendation is that they bring in the army. But the Blitzer is such a powerful weapon that conventional human armies can’t defeat it. The Doctor’s plans to defeat it are never about building a weapon that can overpower and destroy it. His first plan is to trick it into a time portal that will send it in the distant future floating in deep space. His second plan is to make it think that he is its creator, and use his authority as such to order the Blitzer to deactivate itself. 

The irony is that the Doctor acts in a militaristic way in a lot of contexts. A lot of the online discussion about the Doctor’s hostility to soldiers this season has posited that the roots lie in that they take and give orders. But the Doctor does that as well, explicitly telling his companions and friends to do as they’re told when situations require tough action. This is a superficial and mistaken reading. The Blitzer is dangerous because it shoots first, and insofar as a soldier is typically thought of as having the same mentality, that makes such people dangerous. 

But Danny is no ordinary soldier like the ones we encountered in Into the Dalek. Danny is an ex-soldier, and it’s clear from his scenes in Into the Dalek that he has gone through serious post-traumatic stress because of some of his experiences. A brief moment of dialogue mentions that Danny served in Afghanistan. Danny’s distaste for the officer class probably reflects some of his experiences there, where low-level soldiers frequently paid with their bodies and lives for the poor decisions of the military and civilian leaders who planned the occupation. 

Danny Pink is a character that's quite different from the
people who've appeared in Doctor Who before.
After all, Danny insults the Doctor, calling him an officer. A Brit knows what kind of military stream the Lords go into, and being a Time Lord would cause a similar association. The Doctor falls into this pattern of behaviour, condescending to Danny after he learns of his military background with the confrontational refusal to believe that he can be anything other than a Phys. Ed. teacher (although he is a sports coach, as well as a math teacher). 

Danny calls the Doctor “Sir,” especially emphatically after the Doctor asks him not to. He struts around the TARDIS control room like a toy soldier, or perhaps a robot soldier, to mock the Doctor’s grandstanding attitude. And because he knows that behaving this way gets on the Doctor’s nerves — it’s obvious during that scene. 

I think it gets on the Doctor’s nerves because this class conflict is so sensitive to him. It’s foregrounded that season by the master of the foreground, Mark Gatiss, when Robin Hood draws the explicit parallel of the Doctor and himself: the Doctor is a man born into privilege who sympathized with the lower classes such that he completely changed his lifestyle. His disguise in this episode is as one of the most lower-class figures in the school hierarchy, the caretaker.

He can put on a different coat, but he still the same Doctor
underneath, for worse and better.
Clara initially raises doubt, in one of the funniest scenes in the episode, about whether the Doctor can actually pass himself off as an ordinary human. But he’s actually quite successful, overall. Danny only sees through the Doctor’s disguise because his condescending sarcasm doesn’t match the social position of someone who looks to be about 50, but who works in custodial positions. The Doctor has been hostile toward entrenched and institutionalized power since the beginning of the show. For Danny to peg the Doctor so clearly to the upper class here is a particularly deep cut.

The upper class is not to be trusted because they have a terrible tendency of considering the lower classes servants at best and cannon fodder at worst. Either way, they’re something to be given orders. The Doctor himself is vehemently opposed to such power structures, but in his own behaviour often appears upper class. With this conflict moving to the foreground, I think this season of Doctor Who is becoming more explicitly politically provocative than it has been in some time. Not at the intensity of the Cartmel era just yet, but we might be on that road.
• • •
I want to make one last point, unrelated (at least explicitly) to my longer argument, which is that some of the initial reaction to The Caretaker accuses the episode of racism. But this all seems to be the result of mishearing lines delivered too quickly to be caught on initial viewing if you aren’t paying close attention.

1) The Doctor doesn’t regard Danny as only capable of teaching Phys. Ed. and being stupid because he’s black, but because he had just heard that Danny was in the military. This is another expression of the idea that a soldier shoots first and talks later, that he would be incapable of intellectual work.

2) The Doctor tells Courtney to get back to her shoplifting class. Paying attention to the whole scene and the whole episode shows that this is actually good-natured sarcasm. Courtney has already introduced herself as “Disruptive Influence,” to which the Doctor happily responded with how glad he was to meet her. After just this few minutes of conversation, the Doctor all but offers her a place as his new regular companion, and says he’ll come back to her for the job when the position opens up. At the end of the episode, he takes her stargazing in deep space. I wouldn’t be surprised if he taught her some good shoplifting techniques before dropping her home.

3) The police officer harasses two black youths from Coal Hill School. This is actually encoded as likely racist behaviour, a white cop singling out black teenagers, presuming them to be delinquents from school. The teenagers go back to school to avoid getting in trouble with the police. This is a depiction of real-life racism, and not an endorsement. 

Last Gasps of the Decadent, A History Boy, 27/09/2014

Yesterday, I came across another controversy blowing up in the world of academic philosophy. Brian Leiter is facing public pressure to abandon his stewardship of the departmental ranking program he invented himself, the Philosophical Gourmet Report. As the controversy’s temperature has risen, Leigh Johnson has compiled the major online essays from various members of various philosophical disciplines about the controversy. 

This post will only report my personal perspective on the issue, and not attempt to summarize the mess or give a comprehensive account. For that, visit Johnson’s compilation post, which I’ve linked above, or this post by John Drabinski, which first alerted me to this latest explosion.

The Gourmet has come to be considered, if not a definitive, then a remarkably influential source of departmental standards. It is, essentially, the paramount source explicitly designed to guide undergraduates in picking the best graduate programs to pursue in philosophy.

Many people have problems with Leiter’s Gourmet, accusing it of a disciplinary bias. Most Continental leaning departments receive notably low marks, as do departments with heavy focuses in feminist philosophy, race studies, and other radical critical theories. Leiter’s perspective, which he often gives, is that these departments do bad philosophy. Representatives of those departments claim that it is a baseless disciplinary bias, that Leiter prefers to define ‘good philosophy’ as doctrinaire analytic philosophy according to the Anglo-American models. 

Its partisanship has always been clear to me: the top departments vary in their particular order, but they all correspond to the Ivy League and their younger compatriot universities of similar prestige. The Gourmet’s priority is to reinforce the established hierarchy of prestige in American university-based philosophy. 

Whatever you may say about Brian Leiter, and I can say a
lot, he does a damn good lecture.
Before I describe the charges that, now that they are reaching critical mass in the online discourse, could constitute Leiter’s fall from grace, I want to clarify my own relationship with him. Leiter has had a relationship with the university where I did my doctorate, McMaster, for several years now. He’s a leading legal theorist with a side specialty in Nietzsche studies, a perfect fit for visiting McMaster, home of another leading North American legal theorist Wil Waluchow and host of a regular and thriving legal theory conference, and home of my supervisor Barry Allen, one of the most insightful scholars of European philosophy, and who made his early career on his studies of Nietzsche.

I find Leiter an engaging speaker on the subject of philosophy. He’s clear and witty, and he doesn’t suffer fools. I find his interpretations of Nietzsche a little conservative, but I’m the first to admit that I find that true even of the radical destabilizers of truth itself. My friend and McMaster colleague The Wiz spent a year at University of Chicago working under Leiter, who was one of the few professors to understand precisely what Wiz was on about in his project (seriously — it was fascinating). The night after one of his first talks at McMaster, we all partied together. Yeah, he made fun of the fact that I studied Deleuze and Guattari, but it was good natured ribbing, given the circumstances.

Yet Leiter’s online behaviour is quite often little more than a peculiarly prestigious troll. The tone of some of his comments about scholars like Simon Critchley and Babette Babich is more appropriate to 4chan than philosophical discourse. He has also mounted a defence of Peter Ludlow against sexual harassment allegations based on the necessity of due process that is at best ill-conceived and at worst a blind defence of sexual assault. 

I feel safe saying, "Seriously. Fuck this guy."
My own thoughts on the subject of Ludlow? He’s already had his due process. It was called his Title IX investigation, which found him incredibly guilty. The only reason he never faced any kind of censure is because Title IX doesn’t have any teeth to punish offenders. At my most charitable, I’d call defending Ludlow at this point blind and stupid. Laying mercy aside, he sexually assaulted a student less than half his age. If Leiter is dumb enough to defend him, he deserves what he gets.

So I have no problem with Leiter as a person, but I get the feeling that the only reason I do is that I’m not a big enough fish in university philosophy for him to attack me. And if my philosophical books eventually do well enough to be noticed, he probably will attack me for publishing philosophical books that don’t conform to the standards of academic philosophical writing. Frankly, I’ll relish the attention, as it will only result in more instances of my name being spoken in public forums, which means more sales and popularity.

Yet the fall of Leiter from leading scholar and university tastemaker to bitter old troll can still teach us something about philosophy, what precisely constitutes progress. Leiter began his career when analytic and Continental philosophy were especially polarized. It had become a conflict without any real substance behind it, analytic philosophy having now returned to the topics like metaphysics that it had once renounced as nonsense. The only real difference between the two sides of the discipline were in emphasis and style. Of course, that means the conflict was more heated than ever.

Brian Leiter appeared in this venue peddling a reading of Nietzsche, one of the paragon Continental philosophical geniuses, that could fit the style and perspective of analytic thought. He introduced a way to talk about Continental philosophy that could survive the most heated partisanship. In that sense, he was a figure of progress.

But as he grew older and more established in the university institution, Leiter became just as partisan as the people he made his name criticizing. He came to believe that his way of dealing with Continental philosophy was the only legitimate way to do so; any other approach was, just as the bitter old partisans used to say when Leiter first fought them, charlatanism. Leiter the progressive rebel became Leiter the troll.

He was the same regarding the university institution. As his position in the university system gained more prestige, his Gourmet Report conformed increasingly closely to the traditional lines of prestige in university-based philosophy. He became so institutionalized that he would defend any institutional figure, like Peter Ludlow, despite the many reasons not to do so. 

I write as I do because I’ve thought today about whether I would ever need a positive opinion from Leiter to help my own non-fiction writing career. I decided that I do not, so I can safely write something that would risk pissing him off. I would become just another fool for him to troll. Fair enough. What progress he once brought to the field, he now uses the same energy to hold philosophy back. 

Leiter is embedded too deeply in the university institution to properly progress the tradition of philosophy where it needs to go to survive and thrive in the future, as universities become fully Thatcherized. Leiter has become a walking definition of the conservative for the sake of conservation, who defends the old order because it is the old order. We don’t need people like him.

The Oppression of Obligation, Research Time, 26/09/2014

Every now and then, I link one of my posts on a few sub-reddits, just because the audience there responds rather well to them, and it sparks some enlightening conversation. Two of my most widely viewed individual posts, about my falling-out with my radical right-wing libertarian friends, and my comparison of Peter Kropotkin’s thinking to contemporary libertarianism, became so because of links through reddit. After all, reddit was formed largely through a group of libertarians who dreamed of the internet offering a utopia of free thought and expression. They certainly got free expression.

Reddit can become very intense if you let it.
As I’ve said before, it’s impossible for anyone to write a book that resurrects anarchist critiques of the state (and any institution or organization that gains too much coercive power) today without an engagement with libertarian thinking. It’s simply the most popular anti-state political philosophy in my generation. It’s the closest thing to a grassroots anti-state movement that we have (aside from Occupy, of course, which still exists, just without such a big mouth except for key moments).

So engagement with libertarian philosophy will be a key part of the critical sections of the final third of Utopias. This is why I’m reading Robert Nozick, and why I’ll probably have to revisit at least the fundamentals of Ayn Rand (even if she is an intellectually lazy hypocrite who was never critical as much as she was contrarian and egomaniacal). And I recently discovered an interesting point in Nozick that helped make sense of a strange comment I got on reddit in the comment threads to my link to the Kropotkin piece.

This was a comment taking issue with the notion that moral obligations to our neighbours and friends is how we hold our communities together. I received the reply that moral obligations were themselves a kind of repression, that a moral obligation was a form of violence against an individual.

It utterly puzzled me. Then I found the exact same idea in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, in an argument about the limits of persuasion. It was part of an explanation of the nature of promises: that when I make a promise to my friend, I give my friend permission to force me to fulfill it. True liberty, in this conception, is the ability to do whatever I want as long as it doesn’t impinge on the liberty of others. And so holding someone to a promise is forcing them to do something, a violation of their liberty, the highest crime against a person.

Under this mode of thinking, every obligation is an opening to be violated: if I am obligated to someone at any intensity, then that person can force me to act according to his will, even if I don’t want to. Since obligation is an entry to coercion, obligations, whether through promises or shared moral beliefs, are inherently immoral.

One recurring framework of thought in Nozick’s writing is the notion that the primary rational justification for a decision is a cost-benefit analysis: will I ultimately gain more from an action than it will cost me to perform? This is why, in his discussion of harms and retribution, compensation was a central concept. A harm is redressed when the victim receives an equivalent compensation. For this to make sense, each harm would have to be mapped to an economic value for which monetary compensation could be calculated.

Sometimes you just have to do the show, Bob, no matter
how weird it gets. You can't just walk away from
a promise just because some nutter's farm report is part of
the show. You're on air in five. I hope you're ready.
Nozick conceives of obligations to a community in the same way. He describes a community of people who share a nightly radio broadcast; their only obligation is that one of them, in a rotation among all the community’s members, must host the show for one night. When it’s Nozick’s turn, he says, he should be allowed to skip it if he does not consider the benefit of being able to listen to the radio show worth the cost in money and time of preparing and recording an evening’s programming. 

Maybe Nozick doesn’t listen to the show very often, or he doesn’t like a lot of what his neighbours program, or he would rather go camping and read. The point is that he prefers not to produce his evening of programming when it’s his turn. He needs no other reason to ignore his obligation to his fellows than that he doesn’t want to do the show. Because the paramount value is liberty.

A promise is an oath, the honourable bond of your word. To stand faithful to a promise, or a more generally-aimed obligation of a system of morality that you and your community have developed and hold, is to uphold your virtue of honour, to be a person of integrity. Someone for whom their liberty to break their promises is more important than their moral obligations can never be an honourable person. 

The ethics of bonds, friendships, and solidarity in the face of difficulty and personal weaknesses is entirely foreign to Nozick’s philosophy. And since Nozick’s philosophy seems to have become the universal backbone of modern libertarianism, even when his basic ideas are taken to be obvious in reddit threads, engaging with libertarian politics means engaging with Nozick as its clearest philosophical expression.

Talking Past the Danger of the State, Research Time, 24/09/2014

A shorter post today, after my weeklong engagement with my thought processes that led me to reading Robert Nozick in full, years too late, and my initial reactions to the philosophical premises and ideas that animate his thought. This is a little more small-scale than some of my other ideas, really only a few paragraphs work. It should be something of a relief after the extended meanderings of my previous “The Right Wing” posts. 

As well, rehearsals for You Were My Friend have begun at the Pearl Company Theatre down on Steven Street in east Hamilton, which I’ll be regularly promoting on this blog through my own individual effort, and in as many other media as we can find through the effort of my working group at Sheridan College’s Corporate Communications program. So my posts leading into the weekend will probably discuss how my script is mutating into a wonderful, strange, living creature made of a director, a set designer, two actresses, and a theatre.

Plus, my old friend C, who I’ve known since we were 18 years old an in our first weeks of university, is getting married at the Sandbanks out by Belleville this weekend. And my girlfriend and I will be there, trying desperately to avoid getting lost on our way to the locations. So that will probably pause the blog for a few extra days. Hell, I won’t even be able to watch Doctor Who for days after transmission. And it’s Gareth Roberts’ episode!

October is going to feel so relaxed.

But I have a bit of a beef with how Nozick, with his individualistic philosophical premises, seems to have misunderstood a key argument of traditional anarchist thinking. The philosophy of libertarianism has so many common features with anarchistic political movements that they should be natural allies, but Nozick has the advantages of revealing the central premises that keeps the two camps forever opposed.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon really was the most
crotchety of all the revolutionaries.
In this early chapter of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, he describes what he takes to be the anarchist reason for refusing the authority of the state, quoting Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s theatrical list of state coercions. It really is quite impressive.
To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be place under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonoured. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.
From this, Nozick concludes that the anarchist motivation is the same as his own libertarian motive: that by forcing us to subsidize the protection of others from violence, the state violates our rights to autonomy when we do no active harm to others. 

But the anarchist motivation doesn’t actually lie in opposition to this protective device called the state security apparatus. Nozick is writing this way because his social contract thinking that began the book prioritizes protection from violent vigilante retribution as the essential function of the state. From the anarchist perspective, the state is a giant institution of vigilantism that we’ve all become accustomed to accept. The state has the power to do all these actions to you, but with no assurance that the people who work in state institutions have the intellectual and ethical capacity to use these powers wisely. An anarchist is anti-state because investing so much military and police power over a society in a single institution is a very dangerous thing; nothing prevents the military or police from going to war on its own population for the institution’s own ends. 

The Right Wing V: There Is No Individual Without Society, Research Time, 23/09/2014

Continued from previous post . . . You see, in the history of philosophy, we’ve had a very difficult time trying to make precise sense out of aggregate bodies. We just aren’t accustomed to thinking about these kinds of bodies, and many intuitive ideas of the modern right wing are based on the inability to understand aggregate bodies. 

Here’s a very simple idea to illustrate what I mean. In international relations scholarship, it’s a common convention to use the name of a country as a proper noun. So I can talk, in this context, about Russia invading Ukraine the same way I can talk about Steve showing up unannounced on Rick’s doorstep with an extra-large pepperoni pizza and a bottle of whiskey when Rick had work the next morning and just wanted to stay home to read a pleasant book or catch up on Homeland

Rick and Steve have clearly defined self-conscious identities and desires that they come to understand through careful introspection. Rick’s individual interest is a quiet night in before having to get up early in the morning, while Steve’s individual interest is to get blind drunk and complain through a haze of breath reeking of burnt pepperoni and mozzarella about how his ex-girlfriend never got to know the real Steve.

If Margaret Thatcher haunts your dreams tonight, I'll consider
myself to have done my job right.
In just the same way, we humans have a habit of talking about a society as if it were an organic individual like Rick or Steve. Robert Nozick stands against this vision of society, as if it were an organism with specifically defined, self-conscious interests, whose existence subsumed the lives and desires of all the individual people who composed that society. It is this definition of society as an organism that Margaret Thatcher disabused the world of when she said, “There is no such thing as society!”

In Thatcher’s context, she was discussing the tendency of people to accept their lots in life sheepishly, blaming a disembodied entity of which they were part called society, or waiting for a government answer to their problems. Her point was that individuals had only themselves to blame for their poverty, and only themselves, their families, and their networks as individuals to rely upon for relief and uplift. 

Nozick thinks in a similar vein, but his targets are the moral-political philosophies that would take it to be good that some sacrifice for an overall gain throughout a society. He says, point blank, that there is no unified body called society that can benefit from an overall gain with the unwilling sacrifice of component individuals. There are, instead of this vision, only “different individuals with separate lives.” Each of these lives finds their meaning individually, as a seeker for meaning to one’s own life.* Moral worth lies with the individual alone, and society is the relation among all individuals.

* The more I saw this notion of own-ness in Nozick, the more I think it might be worth introducing the ideas of the 19th century proto-existentialist Max Stirner into the melange of philosophies that the Utopias book is turning into. I think there’ll be a Composing post later on how this composition will depart from some academia norms now that I’m decisively outside it.

The difference I have with Nozick is that the relations among all individuals don’t just constitute a collection of individuals interacting without creating anything new. I’m also not one of those theorists of a utilitarian brand of socialism, which is Nozick’s specific target in the early chapters of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, because utilitarian calculations improperly render a society as an organic whole whose parts are simple additives.

None of these other ways of understanding what society is have any conception of how non-linear causation works. There is such a thing as society, and it is the ridiculously complex network of individuals, their social links, their material interdependencies, and the institutions through which they live. All these different bodies relate actively, generating scale-free networks through which change proliferates in extremely complicated patterns. Society is not a collection of randomly related individuals. Society is not a super-organism. It’s an ecology.

Given the collapse of so much of the Conservative Party's
unity that used to back Stephen Harper unconditionally, I
can solidly say that I doubt his government will survive the
2015 elections. But I'm pretty sure the Trudeau-Mulcair
coalition that will replace him will spend their entire first
term trying to repair all the social and environmental damage
that his leadership did to Canada.
Modern state conservatism, which in its contemporary form has few better representatives than Canada’s own Stephen Harper, ignores this ecological view of society in favour of a vision of humanity as a collection of individuals with no clear connections to each other or their homes. 

It’s why the Harper government’s reforms to employment insurance encourage underemployed individuals in the depressed east to leave their home communities for the economically greener pastures of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Only individuals matter, not their communities; no one loses anything by moving from their historical homes to a place where they have no roots or connections. Now, I’m one of those people who left a home where his family had deep roots, and Canada is built from generations of people who made the same decision. But at least I know what I walked away from.

More specifically, Harper’s bugbear of sociology and his changes to Statistics Canada’s rules that gutted the institution’s power to study Canada’s population articulates clearly the vision of individualist conservatism. Without the mandatory long-form census, Statistics Canada has become incapable of gathering enough reliably comprehensive data (self-selecting survey response contaminates a sample from the beginning) to measure wide trends in Canadian society. 

We can no longer discover large-scale structural injustices or unfairnesses by empirical investigation. If we don’t discover them, we don’t have to accept their existence. All we have are isolated individuals whose riches or poverty is contingent and without cause other than the individuals’ histories. We can imagine a level playing field of pure individuality where all are morally equal and equally responsible for their lot. The imperative to help disappears when we are all separate and isolated individuals.

A Familiar Architect, Doctor Who: Time Heist, Reviews, 21/09/2014

Is Clara the Clooney, the Damon, or the Cheadle?
Because she's definitely not the Julia Roberts.
I don’t think this review will end up running quite as long as my previous encounters with this season of Doctor Who, simply because I’m not sure that there’s very much to say. It’s strange, yet strangely appropriate, for an episode so jam-packed with interesting sci-fi ideas. However, I’m going to have to say 


from the very beginning, since so much of my discussion will depend upon the plot. Unlike much of Doctor Who so far this season, Time Heist actually consists almost entirely of plot. Aside from the regulars, none of the characters exist much beyond sympathetic plot-functional entities, and the episode basically plays out Doctor Who by the numbers. 

Now, given the immense complexity of Doctor Who as a 51 year multimedia text with thousands of different authors, there isn’t really literally such a thing as ordinary Doctor Who. Within a given creative era of Doctor Who, however, there is. While the thematic concerns of the Steven Moffat playbook are particularly wide, every time you revisit those themes, you should have a slight variation on them to prevent repetition and keep the text creative. There are many ways to express a single idea because expression, even of simple ideas, can be infinitely and infinitesimally complex.

I got the feeling that the palette of strong primary colours
throughout the corridor-running sequences of Time Heist
were supposed to have some deeper set of symbolic
meanings. No idea what they could be, though.
Much of the success of Time Heist’s central narrative conceit — Doctor Who crashes into a heist movie — must rest in its direction, as the modern heist film is defined by the visual panache of its slick cinematography and snappy editing. Yet aside from a few striking shots designed in homage to the Soderbergh Oceans films, Douglas McKinnon doesn’t really do much other than film the actors running through the same corridor set lit in different colours.

So the story is left to rest on its ideas, of which there are many. But, like the characterization and story, their treatment remains superficial.

The plot itself is a conceit typical of the Moffat era: a giant MacGuffin covering up an ethical motivation. The insanely wealthy Karabraxos, dying of old age in hospital and filled with regret, calls the Doctor to assign him to rob her own bank when she’s in middle age. The purpose is to free the enslaved Teller creatures, security guards whose powerful telepathic abilities are easily weaponized to mind-wipe fatally anyone suspected of stealing from her bank. 

The middle-aged Karabraxos is precisely the type of cold-hearted rich person as to keep an enslaved telepath as a lethal security system, as she regularly cycles through clones of herself to fill her own bank’s upper management positions. She also feels no remorse about incinerating her own clones when they fail performance reviews or make unacceptable mistakes. In this sense, she makes for a brilliant critique of the current regime of bankers and financiers. However, the story never lingers on the details of Karabraxos' evil long enough or in sufficient detail to make the political critique of our own society anything more than a sketchy reflection, a hazy image.

The apparent villain that's really a sort of victim is another
aspect of the revisionist conception of the monster in Doctor
Who that has become a common trope of the current creative
era. But even the revision is growing old.
The guest characters are charming and ethically kind enough to be sympathetic rogues of the sort common to most non-moralizing crime fiction. There’s a man who’s part-computer, allowing him literally to plug himself into computer systems. There’s a woman who can shape-shift into anyone from whom she has a cell sample. The entire heist itself has been pre-arranged, as if someone has travelled back in time from the future to place the necessary tools where they should be for the team to carry on its task.

In case you’re at all unsure as to who this mysterious time-traveller is who has pointedly manipulated all the protagonists of the episode into doing exactly what he wants them to do, the Doctor identifies the mysterious “Architect” as just such a manipulative, callous, man who thinks he’s entirely too clever. As the Doctor says, “I hate the Architect!” 

By this point, of course, he’s figured out that he’s the one who set up the details of the entire heist, then mind-wiped himself, Clara, and the rest of his team to protect them from the Teller. The Doctor’s self-loathing is yet another regular Moffat era trope. No longer having the excuse of the Time War’s trauma to make the Doctor hate himself, his self-hatred now only comes from the convenience of a writer falling back on tired story tropes. 

Wait, no, I mean the Doctor’s self-hatred is rooted in a more general disdain for the ethically worse elements of his own personality. We all share this in some way, because any reasonable amount of self-reflection and self-assessment reveals that our own personalities rarely measure up to our ideals. We want to be fair, but we sometimes act bitter and mean. We want to be kind, but we’re sometimes too irritated with unrelated concerns to listen with empathy to the problems of those we care about. We’re sometimes too sharp or too callous, and say things that we later wish we hadn’t. 

The Doctor may be holding a worm to erase his memory,
but he isn't really all that worm-like himself, no matter what
he may think when he feels bad about himself.
But these problems aren’t enough to motivate the kind of powerful self-hatred this script had the Doctor express. He isn’t guilty of genocide anymore; the Doctor doesn’t have to carry around the kind of psychological weight appropriate to that terror. Yet it flows from Stephen Thompson’s keyboard because that’s how, in the Moffat era, the Doctor expresses his regretful feelings. 

Phil Sandifer described Bob Baker and Dave Martin, a long-term writing team in the classic series, as having written some brilliant scripts filled with fantastic ideas to explore. The problem was that by the end of their tenure on Doctor Who, their wildly inventive scripts were just throwing ideas at the screen with little point or direction. There was a lot being said, but there was nothing left to say. 

If Thompson’s script reveals anything about Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who at the start of the Capaldi era, it may be that the show’s current production period is beginning to approach its point of creative repetition and the accompanying diminishing returns. If the best writers ever deliver such repetitious, creatively empty scripts, then we'll know it's time for a production changeover. Right now, it's only the middle-of-the-road writers like Thompson who deliver this kind of product. But when your reliable workhorses can't really hold it together, then the time for a change might be coming.

The Right Wing IV: Neither Purest Liberty Nor the State, Research Time, 20/09/2014

Continued from previous . . . This is where I had a feeling my engagement with Robert Nozick would go, and from the first page of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, my prediction has actually been pretty accurate. Now, a lot of this comes from reading about Nozick. I think I’ve probably read more about Nozick than I’ve read actual Nozick at this point.

Reading Nozick gives me the sense of communing
with a brilliant mind, with whom I share virtually
I read that short excerpt from Anarchy, State, and Utopia in Dr Simpson’s class, read a single essay of his about retributive justice after an older professor unintentionally offended me with his attitude toward a younger colleague making an unorthodox point about retributive justice, and that’s it. As for reading about Nozick, I’ve read encyclopedia articles, secondary material that references him, engaged in many discussions with professors who’ve read more of this work, read this fascinating article, and this hilarious webcomic. I’ve also taken part in casual conversations with people whose world-views are profoundly influenced by Nozick’s ideas.

Yet, as I all-too-late-for-my-own-credibility-as-a-critic read Nozick in detail for the first time, I already find myself opposed to the very beginning of his approach. The strong individualism of the human race that Nozick approves is anathema to me. Individuals carry rights, yes, but he prioritizes these rights that one not be violated to such a degree that responsibilities disappear. 

He says, referring to the idea as a clearly true principle, that one is under no obligation to sacrifice one’s own wealth and property to help others, and that forcing you into this obligation violates your rights. I agree that it is a violation of your freedom to force you to give of your own wealth to help those who have little (or work toward changes to a global economic ecology that enforces harmful inequalities and material injustices). 

But, in contrast with Nozick, I say that it is a dereliction of your moral responsibilities as a person to restrict your world to such a degree that even the greatest wealth aids only one's family, is stingy with employees, and neglects one’s urban neighbours in poverty. This perspective, privileging an ethical responsibility to improve one’s wider world, doesn’t even seem to appear in Nozick’s thinking. As far as he’s concerned, you can either choose to give of yourself to others or choose to neglect them; redistributive state activity coerces those who would prefer to neglect because it forcibly takes their choice away. The condemnation of the neglectful as moral reprobates doesn’t occur to Nozick’s framework.

From Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie's hilarious take on how
ridiculous and terrifying a privatized police service (or rather,
a privately held dominant protective association) would be.
This ethical blindness (or rather, blindness to ethics, as I understand it, in the Spinozist sense) lies in his reliance on John Locke for his main source of social contract theory. If the fundamental principle of social/political unity* is the contract among autonomous individuals, then you’ll always understand individuality as primary and social links themselves as inessential or less important. 

* Another aspect of Nozick’s thinking that I find strange is his depiction of anarchism as an a-political society. That is, because there is no state in an anarchistic society, there can be no politics. So politics is defined from the start in terms of the state. I, meanwhile, define politics as any kind of jockeying for military, economic, or moral power in society. In this, the state is less prominent in my own thinking than in that of the paradigm modern libertarian. A little ironic.

Nozick would appear to write in the context of there being only two choices in politics: emphasize individuals and their rights to liberty, or emphasize society as a unified mass body whose expression is the state and the power of the state to demand sacrifices of individuals for the whole. 

Network politics (the new, positive approach to anarchism) knows this is a false choice. The aggregate is constituted from individuals, but the social institutions, frameworks, relations, and obligations that arise from the aggregation of individuals creates a real complex body called society that changes the nature of those individuals. This way of thinking completely changes your priorities. To be continued . . . 

I Hear Voices Across My Desk, Composing, 18/09/2014

Wednesday was so ridiculously busy that I couldn’t really sit down and blog an entry for today, but I got some things done on the way home from my campus in Oakville. So I was able to load this up to post this evening. The schedule goes, I’ll probably promote this as Friday’s post as well, write a conclusion to my thoughts on my coming battle with Robert Nozick for Saturday, then post my review of Doctor Who: Time Heist for either Sunday afternoon or Monday morning.

It’s not so much that Adam Writes Everything is scattershot. Posts are regular, with few unscheduled skips. But there are always variations to the plan that pop up at the last minute. 

One quite pleasant such variation was the first read-through of You Were My Friend, as the cast and crew sat around a desk at the Pearl Company in Hamilton. It was the first time that anything I wrote was performed by professional actors in a professional context. The play’s director Mel told me beforehand how wonderful it felt to hear your words being spoken, and it really is a beautiful feeling. It helps that my dialogue wasn’t terrible. In fact, it was generally pretty good.

I designed You Were My Friend as a social realist play, a simple story about people under pressure from the current economy. Hearing Samantha and Hannah, our actors, read through the script in real time also gave me a good sense of how the narrative unfolds over time. Samantha’s character comes from a working class background and a hostile home environment, but begins with an optimistic, hopeful attitude about her fellow humans and her new life in the rough neighbourhoods of Toronto. But as the grind of the everlasting recession goes on, that hope gets pushed under her anger and frustration at continuing exploitation by customers, bosses, and co-workers.

Hannah’s character is already jaded from working in mediocre office jobs for a few years, and funnels that bitterness into rage at the idiocy of the human race. She hates people to distract her from hating herself. Samantha is the centre of gravity around which Hannah flies fuelled by rage until she crashes. Substance use (but not really abuse, as that would be too cheesy in my context) is how they deal with their frustrations.

Another pleasant aspect of the play’s production is that I now have a promotional team working for me. Well, I shouldn’t be quite so hierarchical about it. I’m retraining right now in the Corporate Communications program at Sheridan College, and our working teams each have to promote a not-for-profit event this Fall as a credit for one of our courses. 

Our professor for this course was cool with our promoting You Were My Friend, which plays over this November. So we have a publicity team working at the training program for the best public relations practitioners in Canada. And they’re cool with my paying them in complementary tickets. 

The Right Wing III: Bob Nozick, Freedom, and Basketball, A History Boy, 17/09/2014

Continued from last post . . . All of this has been a prelude to my conclusion, which I came to only over this weekend, that the final third of the Utopias book will not be complete unless I engage with Robert Nozick. 

A few notes on my personal history first of all. I was first exposed to Robert Nozick in the same place where I was first exposed to John Rawls: a third-level class in political philosophy that I took at Memorial University from Evan Simpson. I first met Evan when I used to interview him reasonably regularly for The Muse, Memorial’s student newspaper. He was VP-Academic for the university at the time, and an infamous interview for being something of a slow talker. 

After he left the position to wait out his retirement in the philosophy faculty, I learned that his reticence to make useable statements in interviews was largely a symptom of his regular dissent from the university’s general direction straight into bed with the mining and oil interests who were becoming the main influencers of Memorial’s broader policies, as well as the general direction of the provincial government. He tended to disagree with the policy of the university of which he was a VP, and was too much of a philosopher to be content with talking points, so our reporters' stable thought he was just being obscure and evasive. Really, he was just very good at not saying what he didn't want to be forced to say. But as my professor, he was an informal career advisor for me, and he’s now something of an elderly, soft-spoken Yoda in my life. Still a slow talker, though.

One thing that impressed me about Nozick as I slowly learned
more about him is that he was one of the last American
university-based philosophers to write with insight and
recognition in nearly every sub-discipline of the tradition.
But it was his class that introduced me to Nozick, even though I didn’t think much about him at the time. I was drawn to the philosophy in which I saw the most positive potential, and in that class, it was the essay by Michel Foucault, a selection from his collection Power/Knowledge. Yet I do remember the basic outline of the Nozick selection in that textbook, his famous Wilt Chamberlain argument.

It was a simple argument against economic egalitarianism. Imagine that everyone pays $1 to attend basketball games regularly, and that all the players get an equal share of the proceeds. But Wilt Chamberlain has become such a famous and entertaining player that he has a hat passed around at every game for five cent tips. Everyone in the crowd loves his court hijinks so much that they all drop their nickels into the Chamberlain hats. If 10,000 people show up to each game, then Wilt has made an extra $500 more than all his teammates every night they play.

There’s nothing unjust about this arrangement. No one is being forced to drop their tip in Wilt’s hat. But it’s clearly a violation of the principle of total economic egalitarianism. In fact, to enforce economic egalitarianism would require an act of violence against both Wilt Chamberlain and his fans: you’d have to prevent him from passing around his tip jar, and prevent his fans from tipping him. Therefore, difference in income produced by the public recognition of greater talent is just, and to prevent this difference from constituting itself is unjust. 

Of course the real most entertaining basketball players of all
time are the Harlem Globetrotters, or at least the race of
supermen into which they will eventually evolve themselves.
I was never swayed by this argument when I first read it. It’s not that I believe in pure economic egalitarianism — I think that’s actually ridiculous. I do believe there’s a threshold of wealth that a person can achieve beyond which they begin to lose sight of the ethical connection with others that makes you a basically moral person. It’s when you become so rich that you see all others as rabble or servants, so rich that your very existence in such extreme material affluence exercises power over everyone you meet. It’s when you become so rich that you stop being a person and become an oligarch.

When I first read Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain argument, I didn’t even think it was worth making. The kind of pure economic egalitarianism he was apparently arguing against in that passage didn’t even seem defensible or possible (or all that sane) in the first place. When I first encountered Nozick’s philosophy, I responded with a shrug.

But since then, I learned just how influential Nozick’s ideas have been on contemporary libertarianism. His concept of the minimal state is central to many libertarian positions today: that the only legitimate activities of the state are national defence and law enforcement. The military and the police.

However, to me, there are the state institutions that precisely need the most oversight by the people, to make sure that their cultures don’t develop a sense of entitlement or superiority. A military leadership that thinks it knows better how to run or defend the country than a civilian authority becomes quite likely to overthrow that civilian government. 

A police culture that sees itself as the dictator of the populace instead of servant and protector becomes a brutalizer for the sake of law. Like the Ferguson police trolling for speeding tickets to make up their budget shortfalls, they prey on their own population to maintain their armed power over the people. This is why a civilian population must always be more powerful, somehow, than its military and police. It seems utterly hypocritical to me that someone who self-identifies as a libertarian would want to preserve the military and police when minimizing the state to prevent government from violently coercing the populace.

Yet this is Nozick’s argument. And network politics must find a way out of it. It’s not the only needle that the camel of network politics has to thread if the Utopias book is going to make any sense at all. To be continued . . . 

The Right Wing II: A Short Critique of the Libertarian, Composing, 16/09/2014

Continued from last post . . . Let me explain. I’ve discussed before how I’ve settled on the basic structure of the Utopias manuscript. It will be in three parts, the first two of which I have a solid outline for. The first part analyzes the totalitarian tendency of a technological world. It's not a new concept, but I think it's a new spin on a well-known idea. The second describes the metaphysical response to this problem, how we can accept that we have, essentially speaking, been transformed into machines, while understanding that this doesn’t annihilate our freedom. Being a machine, being a technological man, creates a new kind of freedom with new responsibilities. The arcs of both these thirds are laid out: I know what they’ll look like.

The last third remains up in the air. I know it will articulate a broadly anarchist political philosophy, which over the last week or so, I’ve decided to call network politics and networked societies. But I’m not yet sure how precisely to lay out the principles of network politics or argue for it specifically.

I suspect that one of the problems will be convincing an audience to take anarchism seriously, because it has a major competitor already, at least in North America. When you think of a political philosophy that is against state control of the economy and society, encouraging small scale activism and resistance to maintain fundamental freedoms, you don’t think today of anarchism, but libertarianism. 

My core problem with Ayn Rand was that
this advocate of individual liberty allows
so little freedom of thought among those
she has influenced.
While I have my sympathies, I can never be a libertarian. For one thing, while I agree with the libertarian distrust of government, I cannot accept their utter faith in the free market to remedy all. Even at its best, the adjustments to natural balances of truly free markets cause too many economic and ecological casualties on the way. Too many self-identified libertarians have come to believe too much in the corporate propaganda that ecological damage is not actually a serious issue that people should worry about. I don't just mean the lie that human industry and agriculture has nothing to do with climate change, but the belief that deforestation and desertification is a natural process. It's certainly natural in the sense that it exists, but it's anthropogenic in that modern desertification is driven by human industrial agriculture.

As well, a private corporation that raises its own military-style security force to secure its markets and resources is not practically all that different from a colonial empire, which a libertarian would oppose if it was the work of a state.

Libertarianism also depends on a concept of an isolated individual and his freedom to an unrealistic degree. The wages of workers are determined by what employers are willing to pay and what the most desperate individual is willing to accept. It is always your free choice to accept the low wage that the market determines, but a choice is not materially free if your only alternative to subsistence poverty is starvation.

Even more disturbing than this notion, which at least has some backing in the classical science of economics from the 20th century, is the terrible hostility I’ve discovered in libertarian circles to community values. One of my most popular posts (thanks to some viral appearances on reddit, appropriately enough) was the one describing my falling out with two libertarian friends of mine. 

They taught me a lot of lessons about the most extreme forms of this philosophy. One of these extremes was the conclusion that all forms of what they called ‘leftism’ were ultimately about state control of every aspect of life: the police, the economy, health care, city infrastructure. They often told me that the dream of every leftist was the Nazi state because this was the only government that actually succeeded in controlling an entire society and making it move as one. Ironic for my purposes, because mid-20th century totalitarianism is the closest we've come, according to the theoretical framework of the Utopias manuscript, to self-consciously forging the genuinely mechanistic man.

This worship of state control is actually contrary to how the left often defined itself in one of its most hopeful periods, the 1970s. Colin Ward wrote about how a left-wing argument in a capitalist country was for state controls over the economy, while a left-wing argument in a communist country was for a free market, because leftism was a movement for decentralizing power. 

Today, however, because popular thought conceives leftism in terms of moronic grids in 'political compass' web apps, the left is thought of only in its capitalist context as advocating for state control of society and the economy. Even though right-wing figures are most comfortable with state-controlled police subjugating towns of restless minorities like Ferguson and militaries invading countries like Iraq for deceitfully patriotic ideologies, the right has successfully laid claim to the mantle of decentralizing power because of their notion that private corporations should control all aspects of human services. 

This is despite how much people suffer from unaffordable prices of fully privatized health care, retirement funding, and wages determined by employer dispensations rather than the cost of living decently in a region. Because a free market determines it, it must be good.

So libertarian discourse would understand any attempt to form solidarity among a community as an imposition on an individual’s liberty. Even politeness and the basic moral obligation of one person toward another is an imposition on freedom that oppresses the individual and his liberty. It wasn’t only these two that said it: some of my talks in libertarian circles on reddit discovered this attitude as well. It appears common enough in some libertarian literature (particularly the sort influenced by Ayn Rand) that it’s worth contending with. To be continued . . . 

The Right Wing I: The Challenge of Ambition Without Pedigree, Composing, 15/09/2014

Most of what I write about on this blog is philosophy, particularly the research I’m doing for my Utopias book. However, I don’t actually do philosophy for my major source of income anymore, and it probably won’t ever constitute my major source of income for the rest of my life. At its worst, philosophy is a hobby. At its best, I’ll be a well-regarded independent contributor to the tradition. 

I doubt that most of my work will be well-regarded in the university system, where most people who self-identify as philosophers are still currently employed. This won’t be because of lack of quality. As you can probably tell from my posts, I’m not exactly slacking off on my primary and historical research. Indeed, one of the reasons I keep this blog is to slowly build an audience, at least a cult audience, and an online profile for my work. 

Some of my first teachers of philosophy were professors who
were born into the lower and middle classes, rungs of the
economic hierarchy that no longer have the same access to
success in university research, no longer able to support
oneself in an elite institution on scholarship funds alone.
But I know that most people who leave the university sector, especially those who left with regrets and long periods of underemployment, no longer want to contribute to the discipline they worked in. I understand their bitterness, even though I don’t share it. Most people who contribute to philosophy outside the university sector are regarded by university professors in the discipline as cranks, even if they manage a popular audience. Yet here’s an example of why I don’t think the university system is going to maintain a monopoly on the practice of the humanities disciplines much longer.

I was once snubbed by a prestigious guest speaker at my old department, when, despite having happily engaged in intellectual conversation with me during and after his talk, I honestly told him that I’d had trouble finding steady work after finishing my PhD. That man was Peter Ludlow, who I would discover only a few weeks later was a walking disgrace to the profession of university teacher and the discipline of philosophy.

The problem is decadence. Professors at the top of the heap can too easily phone in their work while taking advantage of their position for personal gain and pleasure. The insecurely employed professors at the contractual and adjunct levels are, meanwhile, too overworked and underpaid to achieve any worthwhile scholarship or creative contributions to the wider traditions. Ambitious work is discouraged in the culture of a corporatized university. It is the independents who, despite their unfortunate status among the entrenched scholars of the university system, are the only ones in the best place to take risks as thinkers and writers.

So, if you’ll let me indulge in a little pretension, just as Franz Kafka composed his literature after spending the day at his insurance firm and Wallace Stevens composed poetry walking to his office, the most creative philosophy of the next 100 years will likely come from independent practitioners networking through the internet across the world. 

With regard to my own particular work, I’m preparing to enter a field of political philosophy that I think I’ll need some help from my networks to get a true grip on. The right wing. To be continued. . . 

The Worldly Power of Fear, Doctor Who: Listen, Reviews, 14/09/2014

This opening scene is the most explicit of several suggestions
throughout this season emphasizing the Doctor's mysticism.
But more on that later.
One thing that immediately struck my girlfriend and I on watching Listen, which we both agreed was brilliant, is that Peter Capaldi can sometimes play the Doctor as if he is completely unstable. I don’t mean this in the sense of his being ethically unstable or unreliable, as I considered in my discussion of Deep Breath. I mean it in the sense that Capaldi’s Doctor, in this episode, at times appears mentally unstable.

This can be a very good thing, because Capaldi plays a brilliantly unstable Doctor. It also means that it’s incredibly useful as a narrative device. Steven Moffat, when discussing this episode in promotional press appearances, said this episode started from wondering what the Doctor ever did on a normal day when nothing happened. He’d go looking for trouble.

In this case, he goes looking to investigate a hypothesis, like the scientist that he is. Given that evolutionary processes can result in creatures that are optimally suited to their ecological niches and cycles, such as hunting and defense, there must also be creatures optimally suited to hiding. If, like humans and Gallifreyans, there are creatures capable of surviving optimally in a diverse number of environments, then the hiders must likewise be capable of an equivalent flexibility.

Is it a monster? For the first time, really, in Doctor Who, it
doesn't actually matter.

That’s what Listen, as an episode, does. The narrative and the cinematography never settle on whether there is ever actually a creature that satisfies the Doctor’s hypothesis. There’s only ever that one moment in little Rupert Pink’s bedroom in the children’s home* when we see a strange, blurry figure behind the cast as the blanket falls to the floor. The climactic confrontation in Orson Pink’s timeship at the end of the universe could just as easily be a hull pressure breach as an actual attack.

* Children’s homes are sensitive subjects in Britain right now, given the Rotherham sexual molestation scandal currently rocking Britain with what I have long considered an obvious truth: that children isolated in orphanages are subject to exploitation by the people with institutional power over them. I was a child in St. John’s when the Mount Cashel Orphanage scandal came to light. This is an old, obvious truth to me.

Listen ultimately isn’t about a traditional monster in the Doctor Who sense. If you’re familiar with the history of the show, you understand how reliance on traditional monsters can more often cripple the program, despite their place at the show’s heart. Just think of the Quarks and have some whiskey. This is a meditation on the mental instability that can arise when you’re restless and afraid.

Further parallels between Clara and Danny: Samuel Anderson,
like Jenna Coleman, has now played a reiterated version of
himself in the show.
In every circumstance where the mysterious Ultimate Hider appears, it could just as easily be fear playing tricks on a character’s mind. Rupert is alone and orphaned in a group home. Orson is isolated, wrecked in a distant corner of the universe of space and time for six months, trapped on a lifeless world. The Doctor, as we discover, has lived constantly with fear since childhood.

That fear would seem to be the root of a nihilism that has appeared in Capaldi’s Doctor since Deep Breath, where he told the lead clockwork robot point blank, “There is no promised land.” He’d been looking for it himself, but it doesn’t exist. Similarly in Listen, his attempt to comfort Rupert is emotionally ineffective, telling him only that fear will always be a part of one’s life until Clara orders him to shut it.** There is a bluntness to how the Doctor expresses life’s danger and apparent ultimate emptiness that is often mistaken for nihilism.

** This is another interesting part of the Doctor-Clara screwball comedy relationship. Their barbs are never hurtful until the situation gets serious, and I (and I’m not the only one) get the feeling that if Clara leaves the show this season, it will lie in both of their mouths running off a little bit too much at each other, just as Clara and Danny almost mess up their budding romance here.

But there is no nihilism to the Doctor’s belief in the universality of fear and the non-existence of a promised land or paradise that transcends material existence. Clara is the voice of affirmation here, in the flashback sentence to the Doctor’s own childhood, but the choice and the worldview is the Doctor’s own. And it’s just as I discussed in my essay in the volume Doctor Who and Philosophy, about the Doctor’s nature as a kind of Overman.

Anthony Coburn first wrote that "Fear makes companions of
us all," which inspires the young Doctor in Listen, making a
temporal circle around the first truly inspiring lines in the
history of Doctor Who.
The Doctor never stops being afraid. “Fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly,” calling back to a line about the ethical nature of the Doctor in the novelizations of Terrance Dicks. That notion recurs continually in the work of Moffat and of Paul Cornell, who wrote fantastic novels for the Virgin Publishing era and two brilliant television stories in the Davies era. Fear is, instead, a form of armour and inspiration, an energy to encourage you to fight a frightening world.

Too often, we humans are quite pudding-brained in our motivations for moral and ethical behaviour, believing that we need to have a transcendent power to reward us for good actions, or at least to punish us for our bad ones, to maintain good behaviour at all. One of the central messages of Doctor Who, in this episode and in many others, is that goodness comes from our own worldly desires and powers. It’s satisfied not in the decisions of a transcendent force that is sometimes called God, but in the practical motives and results in our actions to make the world a better place, even though we may only be able to do a little bit at a time.